Fighting a faculty gag order at NY’s Nassau Community College

By September 28, 2018

Last week, I explained how restrictive campus media relations policies muzzle faculty members. By requiring professors to receive permission from administrators before speaking with reporters, for example, or by mandating that media requests be routed strictly through college spokespeople, media policies like the one recently considered by Texas’ Alamo Colleges District muzzle faculty speech. Because faculty at public universities possess First Amendment rights, and because all of us gain from allowing faculty members to share their expertise with journalists without official oversight, these policies are a real problem.

The good news is that the Alamo Colleges District has recognized the serious flaws with their proposed media policy. In the face of concerns voiced by faculty and FIRE, the District has confirmed that the policy has been withdrawn pending revision. The bad news is that other schools maintain media relations policies that are every bit as restrictive.

Consider New York’s Nassau Community College, where faculty interactions with journalists are governed by Policy 3100 (“News Media Relations.”) The policy’s plainly-stated requirements threaten the First Amendment and evince a deep institutional suspicion of the media — and NCC’s own faculty.

For example, NCC requires that faculty “that seek to generate external media coverage about a College program, event or achievement must first contact the Office of Governmental Affairs and Media Relations.” In other words, NCC administrators have reserved unto themselves the right to exercise an effective veto power on when, why, and how faculty may initiate contact with the media.

It gets worse. Administrators are empowered to dictate the terms of not only faculty-initiated discussions with journalists, but to “manage” incoming media inquiries, as well. Per the policy, “[i]t is the responsibility of the Office of Governmental Affairs and Media Relations to initiate and/or respond to news media requests and to manage those interactions.” What’s more, administrators demand to know as soon as faculty speak to journalists: “When an employee, faculty member or trustee is contacted directly by the news media, he/she is to notify the Office of Governmental Affairs and Media Relations as soon as practical.”

That’s not all. Over at Academe, John K. Wilson details further problems with other provisions. For example, Policy 3100 requires that “[w]hile on College property or upon entering College facilities, all news media representatives must be accompanied by a staff member designated by the Office of Governmental Affairs and Media Relations.” As Wilson writes, this requirement is unacceptable at a public institution:

This is a violation of the First Amendment because it places a special restriction in public spaces on the press that applies to no one else. It is also aimed at suppressing the free speech of staff and students by having an administrative spy overhear anything they might say to the media, much like similar “minders” are used in North Korea to control press access. This provision could also be used to ban the media from campus if a staffer is unavailable. It also endangers academic freedom because any professor who invites a journalist to speak in a class will be required to have the administration monitor that class.

NCC’s dictates are not idle threats, either; Policy 3100 has teeth. It concludes with a section governing “Enforcement” that provides that “[v]iolation of this policy may result in disciplinary action” for faculty members. And journalists who violate the policy may find themselves blacklisted: “Representative[s] of News Media who fail to abide by the guidelines set out in this policy may be subject to revocation of permission to cover College programs/events.”

After being contacted by concerned faculty members this spring, FIRE wrote NCC’s president, Dr. W. Hubert Keen, back on April 3. We detailed the clear First Amendment problems presented by this kind of gag order on faculty at a public institution like NCC and asked for immediate revisions. Receiving no response, we wrote again on April 27, this time copying NCC’s Board of Trustees. To our disappointment, neither NCC nor its Board responded to that letter, either.

In fact, NCC seemed disturbingly content to ignore the rights violations presented by Policy 3100 — that is, until the media started calling. In June, Newsday’s Keshia Clukey wrote about the policy’s problems, interviewing NCC faculty and me about the impact of this gag order:

“Our colleges and universities are the intellectual engines of our democracy,” said Will Creeley, senior vice president of legal and public advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a national nonprofit that focuses on defending First Amendment rights. “Some of the smartest folks in our country are teaching at our public colleges and to put a muzzle on them does all of us a disservice.”

[…]

Even though Nassau Community College has taken no disciplinary action against faculty to date, the fact that it could under the policy has created a chilling effect, said David Stern, an associate science professor at NCC.

“It has shut down faculty from talking to the press,” he said, maintaining that it’s important for faculty members to feel like they can speak up about issues that arise or areas in need of improvement.

“I still think we’re the best community college in the system, in the state, and that’s based on this tradition of collaborative decision making and people feeling free to voice their concerns,” he said.

With the policy, “I don’t think my voice will be heard,” Stern said.

Clukey was even able to secure comment from NCC officials, claiming that the policy was being misunderstood:

But in response to questions from Newsday, college officials expressed concern that the policy was “not being perceived as intended.” In a statement, the officials noted that no action has been taken against any employee under the policy.

“While the sole purpose of the policy is to ensure the efficiency of official communications with media outlets on behalf of the college, given that the intent is misunderstood by some, the college welcomes the opportunity to further evaluate the policy in question,” officials said.

The policy is being reviewed, they added, noting that any changes would need to go through the board of trustees, which next meets in September.

As Clukey’s reporting indicated, NCC officials did indeed draft a set of amendments to Policy 3100. The amendments addressed several key concerns raised by FIRE and faculty members, but unfortunately, the draft didn’t address all of the policy’s many problems. For example, the provision requiring statements to the press to be “routed through, approved and disseminated by the Office of Governmental Affairs and Media Relations” remained intact, as did the provision requiring journalists visiting campus to be accompanied by an administrator.

Accordingly, FIRE wrote NCC a third time on September 4, detailing our concerns and proposing simple solutions. This time, in a welcome change, we received a response the following day from President Keen, seeking to assure us that “the purpose of the Policy is to define the role of the College in communicating its official messages, and not to restrict individual freedom of speech or academic freedom.” To ensure this result, President Keen stated, NCC will “continue to examine the wording of the Policy so that it is clearly understandable.”

Both President Keen’s response to us and the draft amendments to the policy, though flawed, represent some progress; at the least, it appears that NCC now recognizes that the policy is a problem that requires attention. As always, and as we’ve previously communicated to NCC, FIRE would be very pleased to be of assistance in revising Policy 3100. We stand ready to help if asked, free of charge. That’s what we do.

But in the meantime, however, NCC’s faculty gag order remains on the books. That’s the bottom line. And every day that this pernicious policy controls faculty interactions with journalists, NCC chills campus speech in violation of the public institution’s First Amendment obligations. The status quo is untenable. Policy 3100’s rescission is long overdue, and Nassau Community College must take action.